Jefferson Jackson Dinners a Meeting of the "Tribe"

By Annie Shuppy
Iowa Presidential

DES MOINES -- Former Vermont Governor Howard Dean danced with fellow presidential contender Carol Moseley Braun; purported Democratic star Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, D-N.Y., took center stage; and at times, the roar from the crowd was so deafening that it drowned out the music blasting through Veterans Memorial Auditorium.

Many of Iowa’s Democratic faithful who have been attending the Jefferson Jackson Day dinners for decades said this year’s event, held on Nov. 15, was like nothing they had seen before. The dinners traditionally serve as a major fundraiser for the Iowa Democratic Party.

“This is the noisiest display it’s ever been,” said Ted Brown, a Waverly resident who has been attending the dinners with his wife, Pat, since the late 1980s. “By the time this event came up in other years, there were not as many candidates.”

As the Drake Jazz Band's version of “Sing, Sing, Sing" competed with vociferous chants from the five principal camps present, Pat Brown lamented that the scene was “a little too noisy.” Yet despite the cacophony, the Browns come to the Jefferson Jackson Day dinners for the sense of Democratic unity and for the personal contact they get with the candidates.

“We’ve come from an area that is predominantly Republican, so this event gives us a chance to meet other Democrats from around the state,” Pat Brown said, adding that she is leaning toward Rep. Dick Gephardt, D-Mo., and finds Dean slightly arrogant. “It’s a good opportunity to see people react and hear about different impressions.”

Fred Noon, president of Municipal Laborers Local No. 353 in Des Moines, touted this year’s dinner as the “biggest and best” and affirmed his faith in the 2004 Democratic field. He remembers attending the 1999 dinner when Al Franken spoke and had the crowd “rolling in the aisles.”

Noon, who also supports Gephardt, chatted with Norwalk resident Dan Brown about how the evening was reminiscent of the 1988 dinner, when his candidate was also running against a number of other “tough” competitors.

“I don’t ever remember a Jefferson Jackson Day where we had this many candidates here and Hillary,” Dan Brown said, adding that he believes the former First Lady “understands the importance of Iowa.”

Dan Brown, who has been active in Iowa politics since the late 1970s, also said the energy of the crowd at this year’s dinner was “a show of the discontent in the nation over the economy and war.”

Rep. John Connors, D-Des Moines, who said he has been active in Iowa politics since the late 1950s, echoed some of those sentiments.

“You’re not going to be able to keep these people quiet tonight,” Connors said.

Iowa City resident Joyce Bernardy said she attended her first Jefferson Jackson Day Dinner when Jimmy Carter was running for president. The event, she said, was “like a mini-convention” with a number of factions cheering on different candidates and parading through the crowds.

“Everybody believes in their own person, so they want their candidate to be the best,” Bernardy said.

Although Bernardy said she sometimes tries to distance herself from the political spectacle, she added that people who do not take advantage of the opportunities in Iowa during caucus years and pretend like it does not matter “are fooling themselves.”

“I’ve talked to people moving into Iowa, and they just love it,” Bernardy said. “At the grassroots level, this is where you want to be.”

Bernardy said she was still weighing the different merits of the Democratic candidates, but savored the event even though she did not belong to one of the fervent camps that sat in the balcony above the thousands who paid for the dinner below.

“I’m thinking I’ll sit back, observe and enjoy it,” Bernardy said shortly before taking her seat for the formal program.

Connors recalled the fervor of the Gore campaign at the Jefferson Jackson Day Dinner during the 2000 election cycle.

“Gore had his people come out, and they said to Bradley, ‘Stay and fight, stay and fight,’” he said.

Des Moines Register columnist David Yepsen, a fixture in Iowa politics, said the Jefferson Jackson Day Dinner serves a significant purpose as “a meeting of the Democratic tribe.”

“Anybody who’s anybody in the Democratic Party will come to this event,” Yepsen said. “A candidate who does well here can send a message to all corners of the state.”

The nearly 8,000 who attended the Jefferson Jackson Day Dinner had the stamina to sustain themselves through more than four hours of Democratic rallying and six stump speeches from Rep. Dennis Kucinich, D-Ohio; Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass.; Sen. John Edwards, D-S.C.; Gephardt; Dean; and Moseley-Braun. Yet the event did not seem to wear down committed Democratic activists, which likely did not surprise Noon.

“It’s heaven for political activists and political junkies,” he said early in the evening.

Although not all those in attendance had decades of prior dinners to reminisce about, the event still left its mark on the younger activists, such as Megan Heneke, president of the University of Iowa Democrats.

“Best night of my life,” she said, elated, displaying a program with Rodham Clinton’s signature.

E-mail Annie Shuppy at [email protected]

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